Nielsen Says US Print Sales Are Up – Are you Buying/Selling More Paper Books?

19260558892_cf6b2d8e5a_bAs the year draws to a close, analysts are crunching the numbers on their annual statistics. Nielsen, for example, told the AP that 571 million paper books have been sold in the country, a modest increase over the 559 million paper books sold in 2014.

Coloring books for grown-ups, a concept once as out of left field as, say, a second work of fiction from Lee, were the hottest trend. Led by Johanna Basford’s “Lost Ocean” and “Enchanted Forest,” the phenomenon understandably caught on almost exclusively in the print format, and Basford has no desire to change that. Numerous apps have been designed for adult coloring, but Basford wants her work “experienced only on paper,” according to Penguin Books publisher-senior vice president Patrick Nolan.

Paper all along has been especially popular for nonfiction and children’s books, a tradition upheld for such top 2015 releases as David McCullough’s “The Wright Brothers” and Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Reagan.” For Jeff Kinney’s million-selling, illustrated “Diary of Wimpy Kid: Old School,” 95 percent of sales were for print, according to the Abrams imprint Amulet Books.

Print book sales have always exceeded digital sales, so the fact that the status has remained quo comes as no surprise. But over all, print sales have been very good for the major publishers this year, possibly due to their having signed agency ebook deals which raised the prices of their ebooks.

This includes Harlequin, which much to my surprise is now selling more print books that ebooks (maybe they shouldn’t have been sold to HarperCollins).

Along with SF, romance novels are one genre that went digital first and to a greater degree than most categories, but according to Harlequin’s EVP for North American marketing, Brent Lewis,  most Harlequin sales in the US are now in paper, down from a historic 50-50 split.

“A lot of people a few years ago got new devices, so like anything that’s new and exciting you lean toward that for a period of time,” Lewis told AP. “And that shine has worn off a little bit. Some people have reverted back a bit to paper.”

Maybe, but with an estimated increase in print book sales of a couple percent over 2014, there can’t be that many people who have reverted.

So tell me, are you buying more print books than last year? Are you selling more?

I, for one, am reading more in print, but I’m not buying more print books. Instead I’ve been responding to the increase in ebook prices by checking more titles out of the library.

What about you?

image by Matt From London


Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.


  1. Steve H22 December, 2015

    I am checking out more library ebooks. I have gotten too used to ebooks and the font controls they have…liking sans serif. Unlike many, I read better on an e-reader or tablet. I tried library books but having to return them and lug them around brought me back to ebooks. The Overdrive library process in Maryland is hassle free.
    I refuse to pay the 14.99 average for Big 5 titles with the exception of a few reference books.
    Before agency I bought ALOT of ebooks(1400 in my library)…now I am more careful with purchases.

  2. Smart Debut Author22 December, 2015

    “Print book sales have always exceeded digital sales…”

    Especially if you choose to ignore two thirds of those digital sales, and report on less than a third of them.

    According to AE, PubTrack Digital (Nielsen’s division that measures ebook sales) only captures self-reported ebook unit sales from 30 publishers… a subset of the same AAP publishers whose ebook sales in total only represent 32% of the US ebook market.

    Knowing that, anyone who can work a calculator can tell you digital is just about to pass 50%.

    But that’s when we include nonfiction, which skews hard toward print.

    If we’re talking about the number of fiction books sold — and especially adult fiction — digital surpassed print sometime back in 2014.

    1. Nate Hoffelder22 December, 2015

      “According to AE, PubTrack Digital (Nielsen’s division that measures ebook sales) only captures self-reported ebook unit sales from 30 publishers”

      Yes, I was the first one to report on the shortcomings of Pubtrack’s data, and AE actually got most of their Pubtrack info from me (even though they didn’t credit me for it anywhere).

      lso, consider the implications of print unit sales only being up a modest 2%

      Yep. You’re right about that. That’s a detail I noted as well, but left out because I didn’t want to sound like I was harping on it.

  3. Smart Debut Author22 December, 2015

    Also, consider the implications of print unit sales only being up a modest 2% over last year… while at the same time the major publisher’s reported ebook sales are down 10% (in dollar terms — and down far more than 10% in unit terms).

    Taken together, it’s not happy news at all for Big Publishing.
    No matter how the NYT tries to spin it. 😀

  4. fjtorres22 December, 2015

    Also, just because the publishers captured by bookscan saw a boost doesn’t mean the rest of the print book world saw a similar tiny boost; it could just as easily be that they are seeing a shift from non-reporting tradpubs to reporting tradpubs in an otherwise flat or declining market.

  5. Smart Debut Author22 December, 2015

    Regardless of whether print sales end up overall up, down, or sideways this year — Amazon’s steep post-Agency-contract print discounting of hardcovers will have moved a bigger percentage of those print sales online this year, hollowing out brick and mortar book sales.

    Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Millions, and the like are all reporting flat or declining dollar sales despite higher hardcover and paperback prices.

    And while Amazon’s overall ebook sales are up significantly, I suspect their print sales are up equally, if not more.

  6. Mackay Bell22 December, 2015

    Adult coloring books! Now there is the future of print publishing!

  7. Reader22 December, 2015

    I am purchasing fewer print books. I used to go weekly to Half Price Books, to browse if not purchase. After I got a Nook, I reduced those visits, from monthly to now every six months. After I purchased a Nook, I made my first print book purchases at B&N in over 5 years, but I have bought no print books from B&N in the last year.

    In summation: my purchases of print books went down this year.
    Library use- not that different.

  8. Medium Punch23 December, 2015

    More books (print & digital) checked out from the libraries like never before on account of the stupid ass raising of ebook prices and shenanigans with Barnes & Noble/Nook.

    There’s a Book-A-Million wa~ay on the other side of town, Borders called it quits ages ago, and there are no independents beyond a tiny smattering of comic shops. I’m pretty much left with only Amazon, often waiting for a good discount or sale before buying a book (print & digital).

  9. Richard Adin23 December, 2015

    I am definitely buying more print books — both fiction and nonfiction. This month alone, so far, I bought 11 hardcovers for myself and 4 hardcovers as holiday gifts. I also bought 0 ebooks. In fact, although I have 3 ereaders (2 Nooks and 1 Sony), I have not paid for an ebook in more than a year.

    Not only am I not buying ebooks, but I am not reading my backlog of ebooks. It has been months since I used an ereader; I have been reading the hardcovers instead.

  10. Will Entrekin23 December, 2015

    Print book sales have always exceeded digital sales, so the fact that the status has remained quo comes as no surprise.

    I feel like this statement — especially its first clause — requires a huge caveat/disclaimer for the reasons you and SDA discuss. I mean, they’re tracking ISBNs, right? That right there is the first indication that the data might not be as viable as is being reported.

  11. Kurt23 December, 2015

    100% ebooks from the library over the last year (if you don’t count coloring books – yes, 6 or 7 of them)
    Prices on ebooks are ridiculous for both recent and “reprints” and don’t get me started on the prices for dead authors that should be out of copyright

  12. Mzcue23 December, 2015

    I’m with you, Nate. Gagging over price increases for books they don’t let me actually own. I’ve dropped several fine authors from my auto-buy list because of publishers that are trying to herd me back to print w/ indefensible prices. Nevertheless, I’ve spent just as much this past year on ebooks, just on different authors.

    I do library books when I can, esp. if they have what I want in digital. Many of my favorite authors are moving to self-publishing, and I’m following them faithfully. I’ll take digital over paper every chance I get because I prefer being able to look things up as I read, make digital notes, search earlier chapters for details I want to confirm.

    Never going back.

  13. Purple Lady23 December, 2015

    I don’t do print books anymore, so when the big publishers raised prices I stopped buying from them. I will buy if they go on sale, but if not I use the library or buy other authors.

  14. Mzcue23 December, 2015

    Two former fav. authors w/ upcoming books I will pass on because of price: Darynda Jones’s The Dirt on Ninth Grave (Charley Davidson Book 9) @$12.99 and Feverborn: A Fever Novel Kindle Edition by Karen Marie Moning @13.99. I don’t begrudge the money to the authors, but not for products essentially on loan. If I could own the books the way I own DVDs, I’d take a deep breath and cough up the money. But the way things stand now? No way.

  15. Caleb Mason4 January, 2016

    Will we see poorer publisher P&Ls with these minor print gains and steeper lost Ebook sales, which I think are mainly due to ridiculous higher prices? I think we will. We are our own worst enemies, after all.


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